May 19, 2021

AAPI Heritage Month, Part 3: Advocating for the AAPI community

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Michele Kong1 articleThis year, the School of Medicine is celebrating AAPI Heritage Month by telling the stories of several AAPI faculty around campus.

In Part 1, we shared a 2019 American Association of Endocrine Surgeons’ presidential address by Herbert Chen, M.D., FACS, Fay Fletcher Kerner Endowed Chair of the Department of Surgery, that was featured in the first issue of volume 167 of the journal Surgery. In the address, Chen shared about his family history, growing up in rural Wisconsin, surgical training, and his experience as an AAPI individual in medicine. Next, we shared a story of Chinese heritage from Microbiology faculty member, Hubert Tse, Ph.D., whose parents immigrated to Canada from a rural village in China.

Advocating for the AAPI community

Since 2005, Michele Kong, M.D., professor in the Department of Pediatrics, has served as a faculty member in pediatric critical care. Kong is a translational physician-scientist with a clinical practice in a tertiary 24-bed Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children's of Alabama. Her research is focused on understanding the role of protease dysregulation in the pathogenesis of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) lung disease and acute lung injury in children.

Since the pandemic, her research work has extended to increase our understanding of the epidemiology, pathophysiology and immune response of COVID-19 in hospitalized patients. Kong is the founder and developer of the Sensory Pathway, which aims to remove barriers to diagnosis and improve delivery of care, particularly for children with sensory, social, and communication challenges.

Kong is also an advocate for the AAPI community. “To many Asians, who were on the frontline during COVID-19, be it clinically or in research, it was especially hard when COVID became racialized,” she says. This sentiment triggered Kong to write an op-ed in Good Grit Mag, titled, “I am not a Virus.” Plus, she was recently named by ABC News on the GMA Inspiration List for individuals who are making Asian American Pacific Islander history in 2021.

For Part 3 of the AAPI Heritage Month series, the School of Medicine communications team sat down with Dr. Kong to discuss her experiences as an AAPI woman, workplace culture, and how to be a better ally.

Q: What is your heritage/lineage?

I am a Malaysian Chinese.

Q: What are some of the most important values for you as an AAPI individual?

The most important values for me are to not be judged based on my gender and the color of my skin. I value being given the same platform and opportunity as everyone to grow, to excel, and to contribute to science as a physician. I value integrity and true friendship.

Q: How do you celebrate your AAPI heritage?

I celebrate by sharing stories that tell of our origin and culture.

Q: What, if any, challenges have you faced in the workplace as an AAPI woman?

It is not an uncommon scenario when others assume that I am Chinese, and therefore from China. While this may seem insignificant, it is crucial that we do not assume that all Asians are the same, as there is a tremendous degree of diversity in the Asian American community, many of whom remain significantly underrepresented in medicine.

As an AAPI woman, I can also recount numerous instances when I was assumed to be a non-physician. I have also faced both verbal and non-verbal micro-aggressions. For instance, I was once introduced by my first name, while a peer was introduced in the same setting as a physician. I remember an instance early in my career when a male superior made an inappropriate sexual comment and suggestion because of my race and gender.

Q: With increased AAPI racism during COVID-19, how can we unify as an institution and community to stop AAPI racism?

We must stand against workplace cultures where macro and microinequities become so prevalent that people become accustomed to them, and therefore do not see a need to address them. AAPI need to be represented in leadership positions. Our voices need to be included in discussions as it relates to anti-racism and health disparities. We must create a safe space in which our experiences can be heard and shared. We need to listen to our AAPI colleagues, peers, and trainees—some of whom may be feeling isolated because no one on their team has acknowledged the rising anti-Asian hate. Collectively, and individually, we need to learn how to better recognize when biases and microaggressions happen, so that the appropriate corrective steps can be taken.

Q: How can allies better support you?

Knowledge and awareness is the first step. Anti-Asian racism in the United States is not new. Racialization of COVID-19 has caused the discrimination to escalate, and AAPI became the targets for harassments, racial slurs, and verbal and physical attacks. To be an ally, you cannot be a bystander and a passive observer. Even today, some do not believe that racism against AAPI exists, and that these are isolated incidences. This sentiment is far from the truth. To care is to learn the history of anti-Asian racism, to speak up, and to stand with me and my fellow AAPI community.

AAPI efforts in the School of Medicine

The School of Medicine Office for Diversity and Inclusion is in the process of creating an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Faculty Association to help raise awareness of experiences and contributions of AAPI faculty. Faculty Associations foster, promote, and advocate for groups within the school and within the health care community.

“Faculty associations, such as the one we have recently created for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, play a critical role in cultivating an accepting and affirming environment for everyone in the School of Medicine,” says Mona Fouad, M.D., MPH, associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion explains. “We’re excited to support the association and its leaders as they work to bring the group to life. As we have more information regarding the specifics of the association, we will be sure to keep everyone informed.”

Likewise, two students groups on campus offer support to AAPI students. UAB’s Asian American Organization works to integrate Asian American cultures, while collaborating with other student organizations on campus. Several events are held throughout the year for the student body that promotes Asian American cultures and diversity.

The Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association is committed to addressing the unique health challenges of Asian and Pacific Islander American communities, pre-health students, and physicians. An organization of pre-health students, the group serves as a forum for student-leaders to engage with health issues and develop initiatives to address those needs. Plus, it offers an opportunity for students to exchange ideas and garner professional development.